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The multibillion-dollar Space Launch System rocket that endured hours of Hurricane Nicole’s attacks sustained minor damage but is still on track for liftoff next week, marking an unprecedented turnaround for NASA’s most important new mission vehicle in decades.
Agency officials said Friday that the joint at the Kennedy Space Center continues to inspect the rocket’s mass and its ground support equipment before launch, now slated for 1:04 am EST Wednesday, Nov. 16. What you notice is less than a week between Nicole’s worst hits and the day they launch.
“Nothing stands in the way of the 16th,” Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator, told reporters during a briefing Friday. “We still have some work to do.”
The primary concern – that gusts of 85 mph would exceed the requirement for which the SLS was certified – almost materialized this week, but not quite. Free sensors located around pad 39B recorded peak winds of 82 mph as Nicole passed through Thursday morning. Other concerns, such as the potential for devastating storm surges and flooding, are also not being addressed.
So far, Free said, the teams have found minor damages in the seals around the Orion space engine on top of the rocket, the umbilical umbilicals being blown by the winds, and other things like water intrusion in the approach arm of the crew tower. There appears to be no single damned salesman in next week’s Uncreated Diana to the Moon and Back.
NASA found itself in a position where it had to sit on the block in the turbine and not in the Building Vehicle, yet others were scratching their heads – others were vocally opposed to the decision.
NASA developed a plan
The SLS is assembled or stored in KSC’s Iconic Vehicle Building. Late last week, officials gave the “go-ahead” to begin rolling the rockets over four miles to pad 39B, a process that takes about 11 hours and involves lifting parts along the way.
NASA officials were aware of a small weather system developing near the Bahamas before the rollout, but forecasts at the time indicated low-level development into a full-blown storm. The hurricane season ends on November 30 and it is unusual for Atlantic systems to strengthen rapidly towards the end.
But Nicole’s development trend began to grow almost immediately after the rollout rolled out last Friday. Over the weekend, it became apparent that NASA needed to make at least some sort of decision about the tropical storm system.
But it was already too late: since he started to prepare the volume for three days of operations, the forecast showed that he had violated the VAB VAB wind limit of 46 mph. But predictions showed that keeping the rocket at the pad would be a safer bet as the SLS is certified for winds up to 85 mph at the 60-foot mark. Nicole was not projected to become powerful enough to break that limit.
“I know that questions about our decision to develop or remain about our decision,” Free said. “We had a lot of very deliberate meetings (on both options) before we rolled it out.”
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“I’m sure you guys … we talked a lot about the risk of both and the analysis that went into both, so we decided to stay,” Free said.
He said the Free Party would obviously prefer to keep the $4.1 billion rocket launch in the VAB, but it was a less risky plan to stay at the pad.
Winds peak at 82 mph at 60 feet, but the tower’s lightning sensors recorded gusts up to 100 mph 457 feet above the ground. That means NASA stayed within its limits at the 60 foot mark.
“All the measurements taken show no breach of those limits,” Free said. “The loads varied (at different heights around the pad) … none of them exceeded the limits of our certification.”
If the inspections continue to check out, Mercury’s Artemis launch will kick off on a 25-day mission to lunar orbit and then back to Earth. The flight Orion capsule atop the SLS is set to shine in the Pacific Ocean on December 11.
If all goes according to plan, that will pave the way for Diana II to have a similar mission profile but with astronauts in Orion. Then Artemis III aims to put two astronauts on the surface of the Moon sometime before 2030.
SLS and Nicole winds
Storms of any intensity are problematic for space flight. Hardware engineered to not only maintain restricted specifications and consistency, but also a limited life.
Almost every operation from rollout to fueling takes a toll on the SLS’ hardware. When it comes to transporting a rocket, for example, a rocket is estimated for 11 rolls, five of which are used.
Hurricane Nicole and its strong winds presented another problem: the angle at which pressure is applied. Rockets are typically efficient and handle vertical pressure, but they can be very similar to empty soda, squeezed from the sides, far more likely to cause damage.
“Airframe structures are built to be strong in certain directions,” said Phil Metzger, a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida who has worked on space shuttle processing units. “You do this kind of thing in a rocket because there’s a lot of mass on top.”
That is, because each object is balanced, it is not necessary that all angles are strong against pressure, as those in flight. Boron tubes used in the shuttle program, for example, were incredibly strong from a top-to-bottom perspective.
“But if you put some side-loading on it, you could crack it and tear it apart,” says Metzger.
In general, inspections in the event of a major event like a storm attack could add to significant delays because there is no quick way to scale up rocket damage. Metzger said the 85 mph limit probably has a margin of safety built into it, so the chances of the SLS sustaining major damage are probably low.
“It sounds to me like NASA’s really not too worried about it and they have a lot of margin (above the certified thresholds),” he said.
But if something goes wrong, everything changes — and Congress wants answers.
“There’s always a screen element,” says Metzger. “You want to believe that you are making the right decision, but in terms of space, there is always an element of noticing that if you screw up, you can testify before Congress.”
Part of the inspection process is about generating documentation showing that all reasonable efforts were made not only to find the defects, but also to fix them.
“We were saying in the shuttle program: ‘You don’t want to be the one who was called to Congress for this.'”
For the latest, visit floridatoday.com/launchschedule.
Contact Emre Kelly at email@example.com or 321-242-3715. Follow him in TwitterFacebook and Instagram at @EmreKelly.
Space Lead System (SLS) Infographics
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